A highlight of my Fall so far has been celebrating the launch of my friend Julia Zarankin’s memoir Field Notes From An Unintentional Birder, a book I’ve been waiting to get my hands on—and it lived up to all my expectations.
In this Q&A, Julia talks about how blogging is like birding, how blogging became part of her process as a birder and a writer—and also about what happened when her blog disappeared.
Kerry: As someone who thinks about blogging a lot, I kept seeing parallels between blogging and birding as I read your book, how they teach similar lessons. As someone who has done both, what’s your take?
Julia Zarankin: More than anything, birding has taught me to see in a new way. So much of birding revolves around being attuned to the present moment and to really open your eyes to what’s in front of you, and really focus on detail. In a sense, blogging is also very much about connecting with specific moments of your daily life. To me, both are a form of active engagement with whatever it is you’re passionate about. I see birding and blogging as an antidote to despair, because when you’re looking closely and finding beauty in the ordinary, you’re bound to see the world with a little more brightness & potential.
Kerry: What role has blogging played in the journey to FIELD NOTES?
JZ: I started blogging shortly after I started birding. Everything about birding felt so strange and foreign and wonderful to me, and I wanted to understand it better and process it. So I started writing a blog called BIRDS AND WORDS to make sense of this new (somewhat strange) hobby of mine. My blog provided me with the ideal (and very low stakes) places to test out my ideas. Initially my blog was all about the frustration of being a beginner birder (and getting most things wrong), but slowly it evolved into something deeper, where I was seeing connections between birds and the rest of my life (and intellectual interests). I think it’s safe to say that I wouldn’t have had the confidence to write FIELD NOTES had I not tested out some of the ideas on my blog. Also, I realized, while experimenting on my blog, that writing about birds didn’t have to be 100% serious.
Kerry: What were your initial challenges as a blogger, in particular as someone trained in academia?
JZ: It took a while to let go of the idea that the words that appeared on my blog had to be polished gems of perfect prose. I remember writing and rewriting my first blog posts until I felt I’d gotten them just right. And then for days afterwards, I obsessed over my analytics and cried when I saw that no matter how hard I worked on perfecting my blog posts, they were still only read by 7 people in Mumbai.
(For a while this made me cry and I gave up on my blog several times—what’s the point?—but I couldn’t quite let it go; something about it still made me smile, and I knew the posts I was writing, while imperfect and with the occasional spelling/grammar glitch, had an energy to them, and I kept coming back to the blog, no longer for those 7 mystery people who were likely bots, but for myself.)
And in a way that realization that nobody read my blog freed me up to experiment more, to toss my ideas of perfectionism to the side and just write things FOR MYSELF in a way that engaged me. Since nobody was reading, I could just be myself, right? Kerry’s mantra, BLOG LIKE NOBODY’S READING, is the wisest thing I’ve had to learn for myself (over and over again). And when I stopped trying to make my blog posts perfect, they were also a lot more fun to write!
True story: I actually used my blog posts as writing samples for a blogging gig (paid!) I had at Ontario Nature for a number of years.
Kerry: What helped you make blogging into a habit?
JZ: Initially, I began with the goal of writing three posts/week, but as things got busier, I transitioned to writing one post/week.
Kerry: Blogs don’t have to be forever—they’re a moment in time. Your blog was lost in some website SNAFU a few years ago, right? (HOT TIP: Blog at your own domain and back up your stuff!)
How did you make peace with your blogging life ending in such a way?
JZ: Three years ago, my blog disappeared. It vanished from the earth along with its platform. But the funny thing is that it all ended just as I was beginning to work on my book in earnest, and actually conceive of it as a book with a narrative arc and not just a collection of fragments. So in a sense, the blog had served its purpose and it was a sign for me that it was time to say goodbye to it and apply the lessons I’d learned—and especially the energy with which I’d started to write—to a larger project. I always saw my blog as a (very low stakes) place where I could test out my ideas and have fun with writing.
Thank you, Julia! I love this book. It’s available now where all good books are sold—and I think any blogger will find a lot to appreciate in its pages.
Blogging can be tough for somebody who always likes to have all the answers, for there to be direct guidance, regulations, and specifications. “How long should a blog post be?” is a question that novice bloggers worry about a lot, and my immediate answer is really not especially helpful:
You’ll know how long your blog post should be when you’ve got to the end.
In blogging, I think you’ve got to write your ways to the answers of questions like these, because the answers are going to be different for everyone. The answers are even going to be different for you depending on what you’re writing about, how much time you have to write your post, whether you’re in a particularly introspective mood or otherwise. You’re going to write posts that you realize were too long or too short based on reader feedback, but this is great, because doing it is how we learn.
That said, there are some telltale signs that your posts may be going on too long. And while I love meandering posts that take the reader from one place to another, I often encounter posts that really could be broken up into a few separate posts, and perhaps they should be broken up into separate posts, because doing so would be less work for the writer, it makes it easier for a reader to grasp what the writer is expressing, and it’s useful for SEO purposes.
(I am mostly talking about the kinds of posts that are didactic, trying to reach a reader directly with titles like “How Long Should a Blog Post Be?” or “Signs Your Blog Post Might Have Gone on Too Long.” More personal, cerebral blog posts don’t really apply in this context, though some of the advice might still be useful.)
So yes: SIGNS YOUR BLOG POST MIGHT HAVE GONE ON TOO LONG.
- You have divided up your post with subject headings. This is a writing habit of academics in particular that is really hard to shake, but in general, if you’re introducing a new subject heading, you should really be just writing a new blog post.
- You have included more than one list in the content of your post. Also another sign that you’ve actually written two posts in one.
- Your intro that is so long, the reader has to scroll down to get past it. In blogging, getting to the point is essential. If you’ve written a long intro to your post, ask yourself if it’s necessary. What would your post lose if the intro wasn’t there?
- You’ve included a sentence like, “But back to my original point…” Now, there is nothing wrong with digressions in blogging. Blogging is the original digression, to be honest! But such digressions should lead somewhere rich and rewarding that open up onto someplace new for you and your reader. When digressions work, they become the destination. But if you’re just leading your reader off the path and back again, it’s possible the digression itself is its own post.
- The post took you hours and hours to write. Because this is not sustainable, unless you’ve got a blog that pays you by those hours (and lucky you!). Aim for a post you can write in an hour or two. The blog itself is meant to be raw and unpolished, and you’ll have far more continued success as a blogger if you figure out how to do it efficiently.
And what do I mean by “continued success as a blogger”?
I mean that you’re going to be a blogger who actually blogs!
Blog School turns 1 this month! Thank you to everyone who has made my small business a success—and to all the bloggers who’ve been part of it, creating successful blog posts of their own! My September session of MAKE THE LEAP is up and running, and will be offered next in the new year. The self-guided version FIND YOUR BLOGGING SPARK is ready to start whenever you are. And make sure you’re signed up to my newsletter, because you don’t want to miss a thing.
“I began this blog nine and a half years ago. I remember thinking at the time it was such a self-indulgent thing to do but I also remember how much I loved discovering that the things I was thinking about could be written down in a semi-public form and given a place in the (small) world of virtual space. (Of course I know that virtual space is enormous but literary-ish blogs? That reduces the field considerably.) I didn’t need to think of what I was writing as publishable or formal. It was hugely liberating and continues to be….”
1) Um, because it’s possible you haven’t updated your blog for awhile anyway, so let’s frame that as a good thing. Achievement UNLOCKED. Well done. (I’m not kidding.)
2) Because online traffic always falls off in the summer…almost like the universe is trying to tell you something.
3) Because you’re a human being, not a robot. and taking breaks from work is what human beings do. It’s also how to make blogging sustainable.
4) Because it’s useful and good for your readers to be reminded that you’re not a robot, seeing as humanness is what we all come to blogs for, and also your example might inspire those readers to take their own breaks from the internet too.
5) And finally, because time and distance from your blog will give you space to reflect on your project, to remember why you wanted to do it in the first place, to think about what you might like to do differently (because a blog needs room to grow and space to wander), and to have experiences and see things that you can come home again and actually blog about once your break is over.
Blogging stats are important*, and I pay moderate attention to mine, so I was a bit dismayed last summer when my traffic levels plummeted. Part of the problem was that it was summertime, when traffic always falls down a bit, but that didn’t fully explain what had happened. But then these things (particularly online things) are always about ebb and flow, popularity is fleeting, and I’ve found that whenever I get too confident about anything I’m up to, life itself has an amazing ability of administering a kick in the butt–which is always useful, I think, in healthy doses.
So what does a blogger do when her traffic falls off? I, of course, turned to my number one piece of blogging advice, which is Blog like no one is reading. It’s advice that is always useful, and never more so than during those times when no one is, in fact, reading. Blogging like no one is reading runs counter to traditional advice, which is to write for your audience, which is to jump through hoops and concoct elaborate click baity schemes in order to garner online attention, but I find such advice is always delivered by people without a clue of what blogging is all about, with no real sense of the tradition it was born from.
To do the opposite of “blogging like no one is reading” is terrible advice for a variety of reasons. First, because most of the time, no one is going to be reading, and so there has to be something more than feedback from the outside world to push a novice blogger on. Second, because you’re never going to be able to predict what readers will respond to and what they won’t. It’s the strangest serendipity, and attempts to orchestrate this will absolutely drive you crazy. It will also result in online behaviour that just looks ridiculous, and never more so than when it doesn’t work and still, no one is reading. And there you are in your feather boa and your silly top hat, doing a tap-dance, when dancing wasn’t even what you planned to be doing in the first place.
People to come for blogging for a variety of reasons. For many writers, a blog offers a way to keep a website up-to-date and active. An effective blog can be as simple as a news and events page updated monthly or so. Others come to blogging because they were advised to, because it would help their online cachet, though they don’t fully believe in the spirit of the thing. They believe that the blog is to bring forth results (ie traffic, ie book sales, ie fame and fortune) when the fact of the matter is that a blog, at its most bloggish, is its own final product.
So many of us blog for the sake of the blog itself, a work of art, a creation, as eternal as a thing can be in ephemeral world of the internet. The blog is the point, the one thing you have control over anyway, rather than what anyone else happens to do with it.
The thing about blogging like no one is reading is that you really can’t go wrong. And you’ll find that this is precisely what the most amazing and popular bloggers out there have been doing all along anyway–creating something original and personal with their own interests in mind. That reams of followers were interested too was really just happenstance. (There are exceptions to this, but these are so often marketing tools rather than blogs proper. And if you don’t see the distinction between the two, then you and I were never really on the same page in the first place. And you don’t know what a blog is. But I digress…)
The thing about blogging like no one is looking is that it gives you some perspective, allows you to take a real good look at what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, and change and develop accordingly. It is easy to get caught up in a run for readers, but when winning traffic becomes your sole preoccupation, then you’re doing blogging wrong. You’re probably not having fun either.
Anyway, of course, these are all the things you tell yourself during the summer that your blog’s traffic plummets. These are the things that offer consolation. And then when you discover that the reason behind the plummet was that your blog has been hacked and is now (unknown to you) packed full of invisible ads for Viagra and therefore search engines have seen fit to abandon you and so too has all your organic search traffic, well, you get your hack fixed of course. And the numbers come back. But you just keep on doing what you’ve been doing, blogging like they haven’t, which is what you should have always been doing in the first place.
*Note: Blogging like no one is reading and paying attention to blogging stats are not necessarily contradictory. Each has its uses.
Something I appreciate about being an experienced blogger (20 years in October!) is it also means experience and (relative) comfort with being imperfect in public. I mean, I still don’t like it, the embarrassment of messing up, the humiliation of feeling stupid, but it’s not wholly anathema to my experience. 20 years of blogging has taught me how imperfection is an opportunity for learning and growth, which is the process I hope to never to come to the end of.
And it’s a lesson that it is useful for this cultural moment in which so many many of us who are white have decided to finally show up and take action for racial justice…with the awareness that perfection is just not attainable (though whoever set that standard *really*?) and that we’re all really late to the party.
But to be a blogger is to be somewhat comfortable with discomfort, or at least on familiar terms with it. And that’s useful in so many ways.
- See Rhonda Douglas’s “How Writers Can Beat Perfection”
- See Sharon Bala’s “Imperfection”
- From me, “The Principles of Imperfectionism…”
As you see from these posts, accepting imperfection is essential to finishing anything…and then you get on to the next draft.
With blogging, it’s a little different of course. Like life itself, there is no second draft. You’ll get your chance to fail better in the next post, and the one after that, and over and over again into the future. The point is not to stop.
It’s been a very hard time. Nearly three months of a devastating pandemic, and now the murderous realities of anti-Black racism laid bare yet again, and I’ve got “A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke running through my head, but the question is when? (The answer, for all of us, must be: NOW.)
As our June blogging course kicks off this month, however, I am also feeling inspired and excited, because as I read through everybody’s introductions and visions for their blogs, I see so much possibility for a better kind of world, both online and off it. I see approaches blending the personal and professional, writers wanting a space to weave their different passions together, writers desiring to learn to be more comfortable with being uncomfortable and brave enough to share unpolished work with the world. Writers who are in transition, moving toward something new, challenging the blog itself to be capacious enough to hold it all.
And here’s the thing about the blog: it will. If you push it. If you let it.
A blog is inherently a hybrid form—digital with textual and visual elements, and born of pre-digital influences including letters, diaries, even the soapbox. And being a hybrid in form, it’s well-suited to a hybrid of content, even though this might not seem entirely sensible at the outset. “Why AM I blogging about my twin passions for gymnastics and ceramic arts?” one might be asking, and the way to answer this question (and any question about blogging, for that matter) is to write one’s way there.
Because it’s in the blogging itself that the connections between these disparate ideas and others become illuminated, and the project begins to make a certain kind of sense, things that seem unalike becoming linked and the realm of what’s possible expanding.
And this is part of what the world needs right now.
The most effective way to promote your novel is to assume that nobody cares about your novel, which, more often than not, will turn out to be the case. The death of the author was unfounded, my friends, and indeed, she is alive and well, and expected to visit book clubs and publish first-person narratives delineating her past traumas for the reward of pennies (if she’s lucky) and exposure. Whether this exposure will result in book sales, however, is anyone’s guess.
But still, an author is expected to have a platform, which makes it easier to market her book, for readers to connect—and I’m not being snarky about this. The opportunity to connect with readers is a really important one and can be inspiring to writers as much as readers. And I know there was indeed a time when an author didn’t have to do anything but write her books, and then exit her garret precisely twice a year to be feted as a literary genius, but that was never actually really true, and also that author was a man.
Now when I talk about a platform, I mean a blog, or any of the social media channels that basically function as micro-blogs (which is why everyone who says that blogs don’t matter in 2020 is absolutely wrong), or a combination thereof. And it really helps if the author is not using this platform solely to promote her work, if she finds it natural and enjoyable to engage with these platforms even when she has nothing to sell. There is a direct correlation between what you put into your online platform and what you can expect to get out of it. Also: if you have made a point of blogging and sharing the details of your ordinary life, it just makes sense when that life begins to include the experience of publishing and promoting a book and you don’t even need to feel uncomfortable about it.
But first: you don’t HAVE to do any of this. If blogging and social media micro-blogging make you squeamish, then forget about it. Promoting your novel this way is not going to be effective if you hate it, because people will be able to tell you hate it, and also you’ll stop doing it in a week or two. If you don’t have an online presence at all and you’re looking for a book deal, you’re unlikely to build one significant enough to make a difference in whether or not your book gets signed anyway. I’ve heard conversations about publishers not really caring about anyone’s platform, unless they’ve got at least 100,000 followers, which at first glance is kind of depressing, but then it isn’t, because it just means that the rest of us don’t even have to worry about that anymore.
If you’re not sure about blogging, however, it still makes sense to have a blog on your website, a place to add news and events. If you don’t like the word “blog” (and I don’t blame you), then you can call it something different, and the advantage of having this kind of space on your website is that it helps with your SEO rankings if your site is updated semi-regularly and makes that website a more interesting place.
There are other reasons to blog or micro-blog though, than just for the purposes of promoting your novel—and the great thing about blogging for other reasons is that your blog will thereby be more appealing than one existing for the purposes of self-promotion AND you’ll even end up promoting your novel indirectly.
First, your blog can serve your writing practice. I certainly credit nearly twenty years of blogging with making me a better writer, and also for teaching me the way that small parts can add up to a big project. You can use your blog also as a workbook, a place to challenge your writing chops. There will be a small but devoted audience for that kind of blogging, as there always will be for the kind of interesting blog that exists for its own sake and not to court the attention of others.
Your blog can also serve you as a reader, a place to write about the books you’re reading. Should you include critical reviews? That’s up to you. You can write about new releases, and obscure books, and the kind of reading that informed who you are today as a reader and a writer both, and there will be a small but devoted audience for this kind of blogging too, because you’re giving them something. But the opportunity to engage more deeply with your reading is something that you can get out of the whole thing too, beyond the opportunity to promote your own work. Writing about other writers is also an opportunity to build connections to literary communities—although this is always more easily accomplished when it’s not your explicit purpose.
Another way to use your blog is to write about something that fascinates you, as opposed to something you anticipate potential readers will be into. This means that even if no one is reading, at least you will be having a good time exploring the ideas you’re writing about—and maybe these are ideas connected with your book, extraneous research that didn’t make it into your narrative, trivia surrounding your subject, the stuff you just can’t shut up about. And the perk of all this is that you writing about the stuff you just can’t shut up about is—more than any other kind of calculation—going to result in posts that convey real passion, the kind of thing that people really do want to read.
Remember though that blogs are marginal, peripheral. So are books, for that matter, unless you happen to be John Grisham or Danielle Steele. And so using a blog to promote a book is kind of like using a spaghetti noodle to hit a baseball out of the park. Don’t count on a home-run, I mean. But there are other ways to measure success, your own satisfaction and enjoyment of the exercise among them. All this to say that if you don’t have a ton of readers, it doesn’t mean you’re doing blogging wrong. Really, obscurity is kind of inherent to the form. It means you’re doing it right.
But even in obscurity, you can build up a sizeable collection of “followers,” which I’ve always found a pretty distasteful name for what I’d prefer to call “community.” People who care about you and your ideas, and ideally the feeling is mutual. People who inspire you and make you think, and recommend good books and share links to articles that change your mind, and make it stronger. People who learn from you just as you learn from them, and when your book comes out, they will be the ones (not related to you) who are likely to buy it,
If you’re asking the question, “What should I blog about?” and you don’t have a single answer, then maybe that’s a sign that don’t really need to be blogging. That while the idea of blog sounds like a good thing, perhaps you have some exploring still to do before you get down to the practice of blogging, which is also the practice of noticing things to blog about. Maybe you have to master that first before you get to the next step.
Sometimes though, when somebody asks, “What should I blog about?,” what they’re actually saying is, “Who actually cares about anything I have to say anyway?” And that’s a different kind of question. Your blog is the world through your eyes/your I, and the only person who has that singular perspective is you. What an incredible thing, to be able to see things that nobody else does, to chart a path that’s just your own, and then to share that journey. Even if your journey looks a lot like other journeys—you get up in the morning, you go for walks, you notice what’s blooming in the garden, you take note of the shape of the clouds in the sky. Ordinary, all of it, but it’s yours. Nobody else can tell that story, which is reason enough for you to do so.
“What should I blog about?” can also be a question of what parts of the story to tell though—can you really put the garden, the clouds, the morning light, all of it, into the very same blog? And some people will tell you that you can’t. That what you need is a gardening blog, and a cloud-watching blog, and another blog about the light. But this kind of compartmentalization is not only thoroughly unrealistic, it’s also unsustainable. I can promise you that having more than one blog is likely to lead to abandoned blogs, because it’s work enough to keep a single blog fed and watered, let alone multiples. But also depriving your blog of variety, of space to grow and wander in terms of approach, is also to make your blog less interesting, to reduce the number of people likely to be curious about what you’re putting out there—and to limit your possibilities in terms of what you’re writing about. And why would you do that?
The answer to the question of, “What should I blog about?” will be different for everybody, but it lies along the lines of whatever happens to be in front of you, whatever catches your eye and holds your attention, and makes your wonder enough for that attention to be sustained for a handful of paragraphs. (If you’re genuinely interested in what you’re writing about, than it makes it more likely that somebody else will want to read it…)
It’s also a question that only you can answer.
And if you can’t answer it? (Or at least, if you can’t yet?)
The only solution is to start blogging and write your way.
Even in the strangest days, I insist that blogging still matters and so, to that end, here are my five tips to help you keep going when things are tough.
- Remember that you don’t actually have to—keep blogging through a crisis, I mean. Maybe you’re grappling with the demands of full-time work and childcare, or you’re busy worrying about a loved one on the front lines, or you’re too preoccupied by refreshing news headlines over and over in search of better ones. If you’re heart just isn’t in it right now, don’t beat yourself up. There will be other different seasons ahead—and blogging should never be a chore.
- Let your vision for your blog change. This is good advice no matter what’s going on in the world. A blog needs room to grow and space to wander, and maybe your plans are going to have to be different to accommodate what’s going on in your head these days. That’s okay. It keeps things interesting, and that’s a good thing.
- Don’t be afraid to not have the answers. Also, a bit of evergreen advice, but my goodness, uncertainty sure is having a moment, huh? For the blogger, who is brave enough to write about what she doesn’t know and what she doesn’t understand, however, this is an opportunity because you’ve never had so much material. And if my experience is anything to go on, writing about it is going to make you feel better.
- Take it easy. Life is hard enough right now—don’t be afraid of blogging shortcuts. If you don’t feel like writing, post a photo of a spring scene from your walk each day. Post a few lines from a book you’re reading. A list of your favourite sourdough hacks, or five things that are taking your mind off everything. Whatever strikes your fancy—just keep going!
- Be a booster. What’s the point, you might ask? Who cares what I have to say anyway? I’ve heard that one before… But I would argue that the internet (and the world) needs you more than ever, especially if you’re spreading the word about great stuff that other people are doing these days. Are you blogging about new books, or great local businesses, or homegrown fashion brands, or the best places in town to get takeout? As a blogger, do your part to support the kind of world we want to see on the other side of all this.
This post was first published last week in my Blog School newsletter. Please sign up for it if you’d like to receive similar content monthly direct to your inbox—and you’ll also receive a free download of blogging prompts.